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Chaos feared after Unix time-zone database is nuked

Developer sued for copyright infringement

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The internet's authoritative source for time-zone data has been shut down after the volunteer programmer who maintained it was sued for copyright infringement by a maker of astrology software.

David Olson, custodian of the Time Zone and Daylight Saving Time Database, said on Thursday he was retiring the FTP server he's long maintained. Also known as the Olson database, it's the official reference Unix machines use to set clocks to local time and is used by countless websites and applications to reconcile time differences across the world.

“A civil suit was filed on September 30 in federal court in Boston,” Olson wrote in the message posted to the mailing list for the FTP site. “I'm a defendant; the case involves the time zone database.” He then permanently disbanded the list. Olson wasn't immediately available to comment for this article.

The suit was filed in federal court last week by Astrolabe, a Brewster, Massachusetts-based maker of astrology-related software. It claimed the database Olson has maintained as public service for years unlawfully included data contained in The ACS Atlas, which Astrolabe sells for commercial profit.

“In connection with his unlawful publication of some and/or any portion of the works, defendant Olson has wrongly and unlawfully asserted that this information and/or data is 'in the public domain,' in violation of protections afforded by federal copyright laws,” Astrolabe attorneys alleged.

Indeed, Olson's database includes comments that credit The American Atlas from ACS Publications as the source for some of the historical data it contains. The FTP database is the principal source for time-zone data, mapping the the zones of a given geography on a given date. The Unix operating system, Java-based applications, and untold numbers of websites rely on it to determine what time it is or was in a certain location. The service was free.

“The impact of this is severe for anyone that uses it – whether via Java, Unix or some other means,” Java developer Stephen Colebourne blogged on Thursday. “We all owe a debt of gratitude to the database maintainers who have worked on this for many, many years at zero cost to the industry and for zero financial gain.”

Astrolabe's complaint (PDF) lodged similar allegations against University of California at Los Angeles professor Paul Eggert, who also includes historical information taken from the The ACS Atlas in separate time-zone resource. At time of writing, there was no indication it had been taken down. It's unclear if the contents on his site will fill the void created when Olson shuttered his FTP server. Eggert didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Reading Astrolabe's complaint, it's hard to gauge its chances of success. It doesn't say whether the company holds a registered copyright for the database or even an application for it. And it's not clear if the company is claiming copyright on the historical data, the compilation of the data, or on software that was used to access the data.

“There's a bunch of facts we can't answer from the face of the complaint,” said Eric Goldman, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. “A good complaint would answer these questions.”

But even if the lawsuit ultimately fails, it could take years and tens of thousands of dollars for Olson and Eggert to prevail. In the meantime, the internet needs a way to know what time it is in any one part of the world.

“I hereby call on the industry leaders to help sort this out,” Colebourne wrote. “IBM, Oracle, Apple, Google, RedHat I'm looking at you.”

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